Thursday, 16 June 2011

How to make cycling popular.

I am not a political animal – I have been working either directly or indirectly with many derivations of Government for a number of years and have long since learnt that there are too many varying factors from who is in charge down to whether a local government officer was well received by his better half the night before, for me to believe that politically lobbying is at best nothing better than a lucky dip.

Instead I would prefer to focus on a few factors that we can have some say over at one level or another. These I believe are:
1) The perception of cyclists by others – especially those who are considering taking the   plunge into cycling
2) Potholes – yep that old Chestnut
3) Bike theft

I truly believe that if you could find some solutions to these three items, then the number of cyclists would increase significantly. No it would not be the total answer, yes road safety is important but I have already posted on road safety in my “Cry Freedom” post. For me, it is about accepting the risks, using your experience to deal with them and to embrace the risks and enjoy them as a part of life (I see a hundred and one health and safety managers spitting their coffee into their mugs as they read that).

If we want to get more people cycling then we need to take baby steps – as the saying goes Rome wasn’t built in a day. But let’s get those potential cyclists on the road – even if it is only on sunny days. The more cyclists that are out there – the more priority they will have when it comes to planning and road layout decision making. Really it is a simple as that – politicians make decisions based on the greater good (often, the greater good for themselves) for cycling that will be based solely on whether it will earn them more votes. We have long since gone past the days of Governments making decisions based on what is good for the people, now decisions are mostly based on opinion polls as to what will earn them more votes i.e. be perceived by the greater number of people as being good for them. The line is further fudged by the Government following Green policies as this also lets us see them as environmentally friendly and therefore we will be more likely (or not) to vote for them, this side of the argument cycling has in abundance - but it needs numbers not just common sense.

It is pointless though for cyclists to use the number of cyclists on the road as the backbone of their argument and arguing that more facilities are needed to increase that number – what has to be done is to increase the number of cyclists in the first place and then cyclists will be a more powerful lobby.

Instead it seems to me that the people running the various cycle groups (and God are there a lot of them) want to change the world in a day – it is the usual nimby politics – you have an issue that is very important to you and you think everybody else should see it the same way. The truth is, a lot of people don’t care, they just want to get from A to B on their chosen mode of transport as fast as possible, they don’t want some long term bike path building project taking up their current valuable road space – why would they support such a thing – politics and voting is the art of selfishness (people vote for what is best for them).

Let’s face facts – rightly or wrongly (and it doesn’t matter because it is a fact) there are more drivers than cyclists – I may commute on my bike and use it for recreational purposes but I am a small proportion of people and I have no intention of doing a very long journey or a big shop on my bike. So instead of trying to change the world let’s just focus on what we can deal with. One of the reasons I wrote this blog, was to show people of my age and income bracket (and we are quite poorly represented I feel) that there is a positive and fun side to cycling. People of my ilk do not fit into the tree hugging hippy bracket – so I focus on what makes cycling fun for me and also have a laugh at myself for some of my vanities and difficulties in dealing with middle age. As I have said before, it offers me freedom with risks (and I know what I write is often far removed from the safety consciousness of other websites) and exercise.

So my feeling is that if you want to see more cyclists on the road (remember every new cyclists in another potential voter) then tell people of your social group – birds of a feather flock together and all that – what you get out of cycling, sell the positive side, but please do try and not bore them (as I sometimes do). The problem I feel if that the cyclist pressure group do not take account of the silent majority – they represent the ardent cyclists, by representing this group pejoratively they will never represent the large group of people that will really make cycling a form of transport that is far more regularly used.

As an aside can someone please explain to me why there has to be so many varied cycle pressure groups, it is a typical little Napoleon syndrome where rather than work together with one main leader, people split up into many factions where a person can be a big fish in a small bowl (this is my impression at least). The only way cycling will get its voice heard is to speak with one voice – yes this might mean that you can’t get that cycle route you want in your provincial town to the top of the agenda but the greater good of cycling across the whole country will be promoted.

Now let's we go back to my three original points – these I believe are viable targets – instead of painting the roads of London blue overnight, these are the things I think we should be focusing on.

The perception of cyclists by others – especially those who are considering taking the plunge into cycling.

This to me is probably one of the biggest hurdles – it maybe a case of a person thinking they are not fit enough. Or just as likely it is the fear of having to don spandex before getting on a bike, for most people in my age bracket this is a big no-no. Yes it is more acceptable nowadays but still it is a major hurdle to cross for people of my age. I am in good shape, but even a vainglorious person like me will not wear spandex without a pair of shorts over them. I often feel the reason why the ageing population of other European countries are not afraid of biking is because they can do it in a far more relaxed way, in the UK (well in London at least) I often think that if you are on a bike in normal clothes you give off the perception that you have a  bike because that is the only form of transport you can afford, if you are on an expensive road bike with spandex then you give off the impression that it is a lifestyle choice (I think this last bit is all very perceptive of me). We really need to make cycling more embracing to everyday people who just want to do 10 or so miles a week – not every journey they take.


I realise that this is a personal bug bear of mine – but I chose it for the simple reason that whilst a large shiny new cycle lane is outside the cash strapped budget of most local councils – for this to happen they will need additional or at least match funding from Central Government. Potholes on the other hand are less expensive and a legal requirement for councils to fix when they are reported (if someone has an accident due to a previously reported pothole then the council are liable for damages – I have posted on this before in my Potholes part 1 post). To remove potholes will proportionately make cycling much safer (a better bang for your buck). But we need to report them – take time, when you have some, to report every pothole on your regular routes – maybe that's an idea that cycle groups can promote a “Report that Pothole” weekend – far more effective than a 1,00 people riding down the mall naked?

Bicycle Theft

This I also believe is another major barrier in getting people onto bikes – the sheer regularity of bike theft is just astounding. This does need some political will though. We can do two things mainly – one make it more difficult to have our bikes stolen in the first place. Once again I have posted about this before.

The second thing is to actually put pressure on our local councillors to take action on this. Local Councillors meet on a regular basis with local police forces – they will apply the pressure far more effectively than you ever can (I know this for a reality). You would be shocked at the difference that can happen if police make bike theft a priority. I know that if I ever get 1-2-1 time with Mayor Boris Johnson this is the one topic I will focus on. Remember the local politician wants your vote and it costs him nothing to apply some pressure on the local police – and they want to keep the local politicians happy as they provide a large chunk of their budget.


So if we can take the baby steps outlined above – we won’t change the world overnight – but we will make cycling better for us now and more importantly (because let’s face it we have already taken the plunge) we will draw more new riders into our world and like me a lot of them will become hooked. The more new cyclists out there the more real pressure we will be able to apply, then just watch those bike routes getting built all of a sudden. It does require patience though and we are the people who often get bored waiting at that red light.

I know that what I am saying here flies in the face of the majority of bloggers / articles for example this link here - this is a well written and informed post and talks about the steps of taking cycling to the masses. Many of the assertions here I agree with - certainly their break down of the demographics (I note he also mentions that cycle groups need to talk with one voice) but I still feel the baby steps I outlined above are missing, but no-one seems to have the patience to take these small steps.

So what can you do? My advice is get one person to start cycling a year - help them, enthuse them, help them select a bike and equipment and then take them out for the first few times (and don't shoot ahead and make them feel that they are too far behind in fitness to bother trying). As cyclist we should be a community - we should help others by the roadside and we should all help our community grow - the bigger the community is the bigger the number of votes it has and the more our need become an economic necessity.   

I hope the above makes sense - I even re-read this one to check for my usual speeling errors!

Edit: just noticed what I think is an excellent link. It does not deal with the "baby steps" I talk about above, but it does give some very real and solid statistics regarding the growth of cycling - for those who like reality rather than hopeful speak I think it is very interesting.  

No comments:

Post a Comment